Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Fianna Fail's difficulty is Sinn Fein's opportunity

Having seen off Micheal Martin, Gerry Adams' party will be keeping an eye on the Kenny-Gilmore coalition with the Rising's centenary only five years away, writes Henry McDonald

Canada is one of several places currently being seen as a destination by the young and talented who want to escape Ireland's recession. Some of the estimated 50,000 expected to leave the Republic this year will seek a better life in places like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

There are plenty of advertisements in the Dublin newspapers offering would-be emigrants services to help them work legally in the Canadian economy.

It is, however, only one of the countries that have traditionally welcomed the Irish; Canada might, perhaps, hold out some hope for that other desperate segment of the Republic's population - the depleted, depressed, down-in-the mouth ranks of Fianna Fail.

For in their darkest hour, Fianna Fail can take some comfort from looking across the Atlantic - not at the traditional Irish-American redoubts of Boston and New York, but further north across into the Canadian border.

Back in the 1990s, Canadian conservatives suffered an even worse fate than the one Fianna Fail slumped to at the weekend.

Canadian conservatives ended up with just two seats in a federal election - a dramatic, unprecedented fall that had every political commentator penning their obituary.

And yet today the Canadian conservatives - albeit reborn and repackaged - are back in power after years in the wilderness.

In these bleaks days, followers of Fianna Fail are turning to the example of the Lazurus-style resurrection of the Canadian Tories as proof that they, too, can come back.

Nonetheless, it is, of course, a long, long, long way back for Fianna Fail, which has lost more than 50 seats and was beaten into third place behind Fine Gael and Labour.

Like those other conservatives, the British Tories, the Soldiers of Destiny are now destined to be out of power for the next two Irish governments - including that all-important date of 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

Party loyalists are resigned to their fate and predict a new, chastened, more humble Fianna Fail that will back the incoming government's strategy in repairing Ireland's chronic finances and be less obsessed with gaining power than they once were during the years of unbroken rule.

Fianna Fail's difficulties are, of course, Sinn Fein's opportunity. The latter party is enjoying a new high in support having more than trebled its representation in the Dail. Their performance was personified in Louth, where Gerry Adams topped the poll with more than 15,000 votes and there were other equally impressive triumphs in places like Cork City, where the modern Sinn Fein party had no Dail presence before.

Sinn Fein tapped into the massive anti-Fianna Fail tide and took votes from the latter party's traditional working-class base in places like Dublin Central and Dublin North West.

Sinn Fein's targets, though, are not just confined to burying Fianna Fail in the next few elections.

They will undoubtedly turn their fire on Labour if, as expected, the party under Eamon Gilmore decides to enter into coalition with Fine Gael and form the next government.

The reasoning is very simple: if Labour supports a government broadly promoting austerity measures and cuts, that party's working-class base can also provide a well of discontentment for Sinn Fein to draw upon.

All of that depends on a number of factors, principally the performance of the Enda-Eamon coalition over the next few years.

The Fine Gael/Labour government will have a massive and historically unprecedented majority in the Dail.

Barring a major rebellion on Labour backbenches, they are guaranteed to stay in power for the next four to five years.

If they can agree to a programme that drives down Ireland's debt, creates jobs, repairs the country's finances and restores its international reputation, Kenny and Gilmore may get the kudos for what would be a monumental achievement.

Growth, a sharp reduction in unemployment, the return of the feelgood factor and even a few bankers in jail might secure their re-election in 2016. On the other hand, a five-year period of pain that produces no positive tangible results for ordinary people would create yet another "democratic revolution at the ballot box" (Kenny's words on Saturday night).

Forget about Fianna Fail leading that revolt; the popular memory would still hold them responsible for the economic and fiscal mess the country got into.

Rather, it would be Sinn Fein on one side and the nascent United Left Alliance (which has five seats in the new Dail) who would benefit the most.

So much hinges now on the performance of the Kenny-Gilmore government in the years to come: the future of the Republic's economy; the entire eurozone and the entire southern Irish political system.

Sinn Fein is now perched on a high enough plateau to scale further heights within the Irish political landscape. They will be waiting and watching to see how the government handles the crisis - including some of their old Workers Party foes who are now leading figures in Labour.

Yet there was one major paradox concerning the election just gone by and that was Northern Ireland.

The north of Ireland was, in spite of protestations from various Sinn Fein spokespersons, not an issue on the agenda. No one on the doorstep raised the issue of the north - or indeed unification, in spite of the triumphant chanting that 'we're on the one road' towards a united Ireland by Sinn Fein supporters in Cork City Hall on Saturday night.

Survival and recovery, rather than reunification, were the dominant themes of this election and will continue to be so over the next five years.

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